I was sitting at a folding table in the living room of a Hassidic rabbi in Santa Monica, Calif. Shabbat candles glowed low, a spot of red wine stained the tablecloth. The rabbi’s beautiful wife had gone to bed, along with their fifth child, a newborn.
Three of us remained at table, picking at challah, leaning back in our chairs — the earnest young rabbi, another visitor also in his forties, and I. My son was in the other room with the older kids, jumping off a bunk bed onto a mattress on the floor.
We celebrate Shabbat with this Hassidic family every few months, something I never did while married. I’m not remotely Orthodox — my ex-husband isn’t even Jewish — and I attend an unaffiliated, basically Reform synagogue. But it’s fun for my son to share a big meal with candles and prayers and arcane rituals as complex as anything in Minecraft. And we both like the free-range feeling of their parenting style. There’s an acceptance of the wily energy of little kids, perhaps in keeping with their sect’s focus on joy, or maybe due to the reality of seven people crammed into a two-bedroom in a rent-controlled building with surf boards standing on the balconies and tenants who commute by skateboard to work.
Many people worry that divorce weakens religious observance. I’ve certainly met divorcing Christians who struggle with a condemning faith. And my own parents’ divorce, when I was five, splintered our social circle, which had revolved around our synagogue. But for me, divorce has had the opposite affect.
I never considered myself religious. I attended Friday night services occasionally in my 20s and 30s, but it seemed like a quirky idiosyncrasy of primarily aesthetic intent. The young guitar-playing cantor was so sexy; the synagogue so inspiring with its Gothic style, 19th century barrel vault ceiling rising above Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. Going to services seemed similar to my friend Abby taking cello lessens as an adult, or my friend Amanda who strove to dance on point in her 30s.
Bu when my husband moved out in 2012, I began shopping for an apartment in a different part of town, and almost reflexively shopping for a new synagogue, too. At one point, I found myself at a Purim festival in a huge Park Slope synagogue. Several people I knew from Manhattan happened to be there. This makes sense for me, I realized. These people feel like my people.
Divorce can send you looking for new connections, a new partner, people who will support an evolving, more personally resonant identity no longer adapted to another’s needs and views. I love and admire my in-laws, but in divorce, I began thinking more precisely—and maybe more selfishly—about the subtlety of feeling truly “at home” in my life. I began to reconsider the role that religion played.
Marrying a non-Jew had felt like a non-issue. Both my parents had married non-Jews the second time around. My husband was not interested in his own religion, nor did he push it on our son. But after divorce, the fact that my husband hadn’t been Jewish suddenly felt like an acceptance of a slight disconnect in my home I no longer needed to accept. My husband never discouraged me from going to synagogue, but I began to suspect that his blanket lack of interest had dulled mine.
Two years after we split, we moved to Los Angeles, something I’d long wanted to try. While married, my husband had refused to leave New York. After we separated, he agreed to try it. I met the Orthodox rabbi on the sidewalk near our apartment, and found a synagogue that both my son and I love.
Now we go to services every single Saturday for three hours, and I also spend the occasional Friday night discussing Hassidic mysticism while he jumps off the bed. I’m starting to think my involvement with Judaism was never strictly aesthetic. Nor is it now parental. I’m interested in the ethical and intellectual tradition. And in the cumulative affect of regular attendance. The ritual does have meaning for me, I realize, the taking out of the Torah, the repetition of the passages each year, the effort, one more time, to interpret these tales in a way that gives more meaning to our lives.
I’ve made friends at synagogue, too, also something I hadn’t really done before. Last summer, I was having a barbecue at the end of a long Saturday with another mom from synagogue, a dad I’d long had a crush on, and all our kids. As the sun set over the palm trees, I stood with the kids roasting marshmallows over the charcoal. I suddenly felt like one of those self-described “good Christians” who say, “All my friends are from church.” In New York, my synagogue attendance was an anomaly among my friends, but out here, on the edge of the country, half my friends are from shul.
Interfaith marriages have a higher rate of divorce, and for some, this is an argument against them. But we fall in love so rarely in our lives; I wouldn’t be the one to warn against it. Still, for me, for now, being un-married has this surprising flip side: leaving me free to explore the role of Judaism in my life with no dampening effect of a partner not equally moved.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.